In 1972, Paul Schrader (b. 1946), then still a film critic with Pauline Kael as his mentor, wrote an in-depth academic study titled “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer,” which ended with Andrej Tarkovsky, examining the similarities between various film directors. Recently, he updated his book, and he will be on a lecture tour in the U.S. in the context of the new edition of the book, which comes out in May when his latest film “First Reformed,” starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, will also be released theatrically.
A lot happened since Mr. Schrader turned screenwriter and filmmaker in the mid-1970s and joined the new generation of Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma. First the screenwriter of Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza” (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980, co-written with Mardik Martin), he then put himself on the map with his directing debut crime drama “Blue Collar” (1978), which he also co-scripted with his brother Leonard.
Other notable pictures he directed over the years include “Hardcore” (1979) with George C. Scott; “American Gigolo” (1980) with Richard Gere in one of his earlier films; the remake of Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” (1982), starring Nastassja Kinski in the role Simone Simon played in the 1942 original; “Patty Hearst” (1988), based on Patricia Campbell Hearst’s own book which she co-wrote with Alvin Moscow, and Mr. Schrader directed Lauren Bacall in one of her final films, “The Walker” (2007).
Mr. Schrader belongs to the small circle of most talented filmmakers of his generation, yet despite all his success through the years, from time to time, he too has his share of problems to get a film made. At the beginning of his masterclass at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, he stated that ‘[my film] “Dark” was filmed in 2013 and released in 2014 under the title “Dying of the Light.” The film was taken from me after the first director’s cut, re-edited, scored, and mixed without my input. I offered to revisit the film, cut and mix a new version at my own expense but was denied permission by the producers. This cut [of “Dying of the Light,” the subject of his masterclass] was created using workprint DVDs. I had no access to the original hi-res footage and unmixed sound. I used those limitations to my advantage when creating this new film. I was working toward a more aggressive editing style when “Dying of the Light” was taken away from me. “Dark” represents the direction I was hoping to go. “Dark” was not created for exhibition or personal gain. It is for historical record.—Paul Schrader.”
This is a slightly edited version of what Mr. Schrader talked about to a huge crowd of film buffs in Rotterdam.
“This won’t be so much the typical masterclass which is usually a glorified Q&A. It’s a bit more of a presentation about an experience I’ve had, what I’ve learned from it and what other people can learn from it. In 2013, I wrote and directed a film called “Dying of the Light” and it was subsequently taken away from me. I thought about this a lot and tried to learn from it. I’ve made two mistakes. The first mistake is the obvious one, which is I got involved with people who didn’t respect me. This happens a lot, more often than you’d think, because directors by nature are alpha creatures. You assume you’d just say, ‘Give me the chair, give me the whip, I’ll go in the lion’s cage, and I’ll have all those lions sitting up right.’ That’s your personality, and that’s why you are a director. Well, sometimes the lions win, and in this case, the lions won.
I didn’t have final cut—I had never asked for a final cut in my career—because coming up in the studio system, I was always dealing with people who had been in the movie business for quite a bit of time, they loved movies. There would be a push and a pole at the end of production, but you would find some kind of compromise. So I didn’t mind not having final cut. But then a new breed of people have been coming into films in the last ten, fifteen years, and these are not movie people. These are investment people. When you talk to them, you realize they don’t really know movies very well, and they’re not really interested in movies per se. But they do have an investment model. In my case, the investment model was: I got Nicolas Cage [playing the leading role], I had to have five action sequences, a specified running time of 92 minutes, and of course, I had to come in on budget. If I did all those things, they would make seventeen percent on their investment, and that’s really what they were after.
So once I had finished shooting, I had given them where they wanted to be. I was less of value to them in post-production. Since I had written and directed an original script, I assumed they thought I was an auteur to begin with [laughs], but that was not the mindset. So while I was in my ten-week DGA director’s cut, I had found out that the film had been sold to Grindstone [Grindstone Entertainment Group], which is a VOD action genre arm of Lionsgate [Lionsgate Home Entertainment]. I suspected that this deal was in place all along; it was part of their model. They just didn’t want to tell me about it; they didn’t want me to know that it wouldn’t have a theatrical release. To be honest, I was sensing this when I was making it because these people just didn’t care too much about the film; they just cared about the economic model.
They brought in a new editor; they said I could observe but not instruct. Watching in Los Angeles someone taking this film apart, I went back home to New York whereupon I was told that I had quit. So that was the end of my involvement, and it also gave them a perfect excuse not to pay me the money that I had agreed to.
That brings me to the second thing I did wrong, the creative mistake that I had made. I came to storytelling in the 1960s. Even though there were new wave interruptions, storytelling from that period—the 1960s, 70s, 80s—was pretty conventional. It was really based on almost a nineteenth-century theatrical model, the three acts structure. Film had thrown the other arts into the modern age, but it really hadn’t gone into the modern age itself. It was still acting like an older art form. But I knew the concept of the narrative was changing. I knew our multitasking rewired brains were assembling information differently and faster than generations before us. I just wasn’t aware of the degree to which we were changing our perceptive ability when it came to film. This was manifested in a couple of script errors. One of them was the main character of the film, and as he degenerated, the film should also degenerate stylistically and editorially. I didn’t realize this until after I had finished the film and realized that I had thought about it the wrong way. So now, after the fact, I was essentially trying to fix script mistakes with editorial choices. I was trying very aggressively to shake up the editing and make the film kind of disintegrate. But I didn’t really have the footage because this was a post-factum realization. I knew I was wrong, I knew it had to change, but I couldn’t figure out how to change it. Even if I had gotten my way, it still would have been a problem. So it became very simple to just remove me. They did, and subsequently, the cast, Nicolas Cage and others denounced the film. The film was just sort of dumped. There were a lot of bad feelings at that time toward me.
My career went on, I did two more films [“Dog Eat Dog,” 2016; “First Reformed,” 2017], but this whole “Dying of the Light” experience was nagging on me. When I had the opportunity to do “Dog Eat Dog,” there was a wonderful role in it for Nicolas Cage. I had been talking to him, ‘I can’t just let this stain stay.’ So I gave him this script [“Dog Eat Dog”] and he agreed to do it. When we were setting it up, I was able to say, ‘I need to have final cut.’ Because I got Nic screwed last time, and I didn’t want to do it to him again. So I said, ‘We won’t make this film unless I get final cut.’ And now all of a sudden, I had it. I had the opportunity to back up and think about what I learned before the filmmaking instead of after. Since I did have final cut, I had all kinds of freedom. I was beginning to realize how much filmmaking had changed. The concept of the unified style, while desirable for certain films, was not always necessarily desirable. Audiences are very good at processing contradictory elements. Things we used to call mistakes, we now call choices, so you can do virtually anything, they’re all just choices. There are no mistakes anymore. So I wound up putting together a team.
“Dog Eat Dog” was a crime film. Now, how do you make a crime film in 2015—after Scorsese, after Tarantino, after Guy Ritchie? What does a crime film look like now? I had to get around people who didn’t think in the normal movie ways. So I was asking around and put together a team of younger talents; they were in their twenties, they all got their first solo credit, and they all came from different fields. They came from video games, from fashion… They were a group of kids who not only thought outside the box, but they, in fact, didn’t know where the box was. For six weeks, we met that summer every week at a diner, and I just said to them, ‘I have final cut. We can do anything. I wanna meet every week, so bring in examples from film, from architecture… If we want all the characters to wear green hats, we can do that. We have the freedom. The only mistake we can make is the mistake of not being bold enough.’
During the course of those six weeks, we just threw out all these ideas. Then I went into the film with a Gonzo mentality, just saying how outrageous can we all be. And the film kept getting more and more outrageous. When I started editing the film, I brought in Benjamin Rodriguez Jr., a young editor who had never done a feature before and who had been trained by Hank Corwin, a legendary figure in Hollywood—he was one of the editors on “Natural Born Killers” . Corwin is by nature a Gonzo editor, and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll understand how radical he is. So I was watching Ben Rodriguez at work, cutting “Dog Eat Dog.” I thought, this is the guy, this is what I didn’t know, and why I couldn’t get “Dying of the Light” together. This is the approach I should have had back then. Before I wrote that script, I should have known this in the editing room.
I hired him again to cut “First Reformed” , which I wanted to cut rather quickly, and on the side, I wanted him to recut “Dying of the Light.” So we were editing the two films more or less at the same time. Then I went to Lionsgate and said, ‘Look, I want to recut “Dying of the Light,” I’ll do this on my own, I’ll remix it, get the music done, and I’ll give it to you. You can do whatever you want with it; you can put it on your website or use it as an extra. And I will take zero money.’ They thought that was a good offer, but one of the producers said no because of the bad feelings—bad things that I had said, and so forth. And so they didn’t want to offer me this bit of gratification. But I decided to go forward anyway. Because I had no permission, I had no access to the original material, only three DVD cuts and their cut, and I had no clean sound. So I had to come up with an approach to use these limitations to deconstruct and reconstruct the film.
I don’t want to claim that I saved that film because the restructured film is just as commercially problematic as the original, but it did give me an opportunity to rethink my visual world in the context of post-production. I began as a screenwriter, so you think of your stories as scenes rather than compounded imagery. But now I want to think about them in terms of imagery. That’s one of the lessons I learned. So how was Benjamin doing his editing? Since we didn’t have any of the original materials, we’d show one of the cuts on a flat screen, and then Ben took out his phone, he changed the size, changed the focus, and he would refilm it—totally intuitively. Then we could feed those refilmed scenes into the computer so that they could run simultaneously, and we could cut between variations of them. What he was doing was not how a writer really thinks. A writer thinks of story blocks and scenes, and Benjamin was just thinking of imagery. At the age of seventy, I had found myself how you can learn a lesson that I should have learned fifty years before in terms of what it really means to assemble images rather than use narrative blocks. Also, the learning process, in general, is not necessarily about stuff that they do to you; it’s also stuff that you do to you.
So out of “Dying of the Light” came “Dog Eat Dog,” which is a kind of crazy film, and out of “Dog Eat Dog” came “First Reformed,” which is the opposite film. I was able to get the courage to do more and more different things by learning from my mistakes. Our whole business becomes more and more post-driven. We can shoot in 6K, or even 8K, you can reframe the movie afterward—“The Revanant” was largely reframed afterward—you can change the lighting afterward, so more and more of the film business happens in the post-production. When I first began, it took ten to twelve weeks to shoot a movie, and then the cinematographer did color corrections for maybe three days. Today you shoot four to five weeks, and color correction takes three or four weeks. So you can see how the work has shifted into the area of post-production.
Because I didn’t have the rights to any of this [“Dying of the Light”], I can’t screen it. I have a film archive at UCLA and a papers archive at the University of Texas at Austin, and I submitted it as part of my papers to UCLA, to the University of Texas and also the Museum of Modern Art in New York. If a scholar contacts UCLA, for example, he can go there and see this because it’s part of my papers in the same way that I submit my correspondence. They’re not allowed to show it publicly, they’re not allowed to charge for it, but it can be used in a teaching and scholarly context.”
International Film Festival Rotterdam (Netherlands)
January 29, 2018
“Dying of the Light” (2014, trailer)
THE YAKUZA (1974) DIR – PROD Sydney Pollack SCR Paul Schrader, Robert Towne (story by Leonard Schrader) CAM Kôzô Okazaki ED Thomas Stanford, Don Guidice MUS Dave Grusin CAST Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Richard Jordan, Keiko Kishi, Eiji Okada, James Shigeta
TAXI DRIVER (1976) DIR Martin Scorsese PROD Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips SCR Paul Schrader CAM Michael Chapman ED Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro MUS Bernard Herrmann CAST Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Sheperd, Martin Scorsese, Joe Spinell
OBSESSION (1976) DIR Brian De Palma PROD George Litto, Harry N. Blum SCR Paul Schrader (story by Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader) CAM Vilmos Zsigmond ED Paul Hirsch MUS Bernard Herrmann CAST Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara, Stanley J. Reyes
ROLLING THUNDER (1977) DIR John Flynn PROD Norman T. Herman SCR Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould (original story by Paul Schrader) CAM Jordan Cronenweth ED Frank P. Miller MUS Barry De Vorzon CAST William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes, James Best, Dabney Coleman, Lisa Blake Richards, Luke Askew, Lawrason Driscoll
BLUE COLLAR (1978) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Don Guest SCR Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader CAM Bobby Byrne ED Tom Rolf MUS Jack Nitsche CAST Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr., Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith, Cliff De Young
HARDCORE (1979) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Buzz Feitshans CAM Michael Chapman ED Tom Rolf MUS Jack Nitsche CAST George C. Scott, Peter Boyle, Season Hubley, Dirk Sargent, Leonard Gaines, Dave Nichols, Gary Graham, Larry Block, Ed Begley Jr.
OLD BOYDRIENDS (1979) DIR Joan Tewkesbury PROD Edward R. Pressman, Michele Rappaport EXEC PROD Paul Schrader SCR Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader CAM William A. Fraker ED William A. Reynolds MUS David Shire CAST Talia Shire, Richard Jordan, John Belushi, Keith Carradine, Buck Henry, John Houseman, Nina Jordan, Gerrit Graham
AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Jerry Bruckheimer CAM John Bailey ED Richard Halsey MUS Giorgio Moroder CAST Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Hector Elizondo, Nina van Pallandt, Bill Duke, Brian Davies, K Callan, Tom Stewart
RAGING BULL (1980) DIR Martin Scorsese PROD Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff SCR Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin (book by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter, Peter Savage) CAM Michael Chapman ED Thelma Schoonmaker CAST Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Calosanto, Mario Gallo, Martin Scorsese
CAT PEOPLE (1982) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Charles W. Fries SCR Alan Ormsby, Paul Schrader [uncredited] (story by DeWitt Bodeen) CAM John Bailey ED Jacqueline Cambas, Jere Huggins, Ned Humphreys MUS Giorgio Moroder CAST Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Scott Paulin, John Laroquette, Berry Berenson
MISHAMA: A CHAPTER IN FOUR LIVES (1985) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Tom Luddy SCR Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader (novels by Yukio Mishima) CAM John Bailey ED Michael Chandler, Tomoyo Oshima MUS Philip Glass CAST Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami, Junya Fukuda, Shigeto Tachihara, Junkichi Orimoto, Roy Scheider (voice only)
THE MOSQUITO COAST (1986) DIR Peter Weir PROD Jerome Hellman SCR Paul Schrader (novel by Paul Theroux) CAM John Seale ED Thom Noble MUS Maurice Jarre CAST Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Jadrien Steele, Hilary Gordon, Rebecca Gordon, Jason Alexander, Butterfly McQueen
LIGHT OF DAY (1987) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Rob Cohen, Keith Barish CAM John Bailey ED Jacqueline Cambas, Jill Savitt MUS Thomas Newman CAST Michael J. Fox, Gena Rowlands, Joan Jett, Michael McKean, Thomas G. Waites, Cherry Jones, Michael Dolan
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) DIR Martin Scorsese PROD Barbara De Fina SCR Paul Schrader (novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) CAM Michael Ballhaus ED Thelma Schoonmaker MUS Peter Gabriel CAST Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Verna Bloom, Barry Miller, Irvin Kershner
PATTY HEARST (1988) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Marvin Worth SCR Nicholas Kazan (book ‘Patty Hearst: Her Own Story’ by Patricia Campbell Hearst [Patty Hearst], Alvin Moscow) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Michael R. Miller MUS Scott Johnson CAST Natasha Richardson, William Forsythe, Ving Rhames, Frances Fisher, Jodi Long, Olivia Barash, Dana Delany
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Angelo Rizzoli Jr. SCR Harold Pinter (novel by Ian McEwan) CAM Dante Spinotti ED Bill Pankow MUS Angelo Badalamenti CAST Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Manfredi Aliquo, David Ford, Daniel Franco
LIGHT SLEEPER (1992) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Linda Reisman CAM Edward Lachman ED Kristina Boden MUS Michael Bean CAST Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Jane Adams, Paul Jabara, Sam Rockwell
CITY HALL (1996) DIR Harold Becker PROD Harold Becker, Ken Lipper, Edward R. Pressman, Charles Mulvehill SCR Paul Schrader, Ken Lipper, Bo Goldman, Nicholas Pileggi CAM Michael Seresin ED David Bretherton, Robert C. Jones MUS Jerry Goldsmith CAST Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, David Paymer, Anthony Franciosa, Richard Schiff
TOUCH (1997) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Lila Cazès, Fida Attieh SCR Paul Schrader (novel by Elmore Leonard) CAM Edward Lachman ED Cara Silverman MUS Dave Grohl CAST Bridget Fonda, Christopher Walken, Skeet Ulrich, Tom Arnold, Lolita Davidovich, LL Cool J, Anthony Zerbe
AFFLICTION (1997) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Linda Reisman SCR Paul Schrader (novel by Russell Banks) CAM Paul Sarossy ED Jay Rabinowitz MUS Michael Brook CAST Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Holmes Osborne, Martha-Marie Kleinhans
FOREVER MINE (1999) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Kathleen Haase, Amy J. Kaufman, Damita Nikapota CAM John Bailey ED Kristina Boden MUS Angelo Badalamenti CAST Joseph Fiennes, Ray Liotta, Gretchen Mol, Vincent Laresca, Myk Watford, Lindsay Connell, Sean Cw Johnson, Shawn Proctor
BRING OUT THE DEAD (1999) DIR Martin Scorsese PROD Barbara De Fina, Scott Rudin SCR Paul Schrader (novel by Joe Connelly) CAM Robert Richardson ED Thelma Schoonmaker MUS Elmer Bernstein CAST Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Mary Beth Hurt, Cliff Curtis
AUTO FOCUS (2002) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Scott Alexander, Alicia Allain, Larry Karaszewski, Brian Oliver, Todd Rosken SCR Michael Gerbosi (book by Robert Graysmith) CAM Fred Murphy, Jeffrey Greeley ED Kristina Boden MUS Angelo Badalamenti CAST Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon, Michael E. Rodgers, Ed Begley Jr.
DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005) DIR Paul Schrader PROD James G. Robinson SCR Caleb Carr, William Wisher CAM Vittorio Storaro ED Tim Silano, William Yeh MUS Angelo Badalamenti, Trevor Rabin, Dog Fashion Disco CAST Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford, Ralph Brown, Israel Oyelumade, Andrew French, Antonie Kamerling
THE WALKER (2007) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Deepak Nayar CAM Chris Seager ED Julian Rodd MUS Anne Dudley CAST Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, Moritz Bleibtreu, Mary Beth Hurt, Lily Tomlin, Willem Dafoe
ADAM RESURRECTED (2008) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Ehud Bleiberg, Werner Wirsing SCR Noah Stollman (novel by Yoram Kaniuk) CAM Sebastian Edschmid ED Sandy Saffeels MUS Gabriel Yared CAST Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Ayelet Zurer, Hana Laslo, Joachim Król, Cristian Motiu
THE CANYONS (2013) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Braxton Pope SCR Bret Easton Ellis CAM John DeFazio ED Tim Silano MUS Brendan Canning CAST Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Gus Van Sant, Jarod Einsohn, Danny Wylde
DYING OF THE LIGHT (2014) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Todd Williams, Scott Clayton, David Grovic, Gary A. Hirsch CAM Gabriel Kosuth ED Tim Silano MUS Frederik Wiedmann CAST Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irène Jacob, Tomiwa Edun, Aymen Hamdouchi, Claudius Peters
DOG EAT DOG (2016) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Brian Beckman, Gary Hamilton, David Hillary SCR Matthew Wilder (novel by Edward Bunker) CAM Alexander Dynan ED Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. MUS Nicco Kasper, Deantoni Parks CAST Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Omar J. Dorsey, Louisa Krause, Melissa Bolona, Reynaldo Gallegos, Paul Schrader (El Greco)
FIRST REFORMED (2017) DIR – SCR Paul Schrader PROD Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon CAM Alexander Dynan ED Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. MUS Brian Williams CAST Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer, Van Hansis, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill, Ronald Peet
THE JESUIT (2018) DIR Alfonso Pineda Ulloa PROD Alex Garcia, Santiago Garcia Galvan, Jose Martinez Jr. EXEC PROD Paul Schrader, Lucas Akoskin, Joceline Hernandez, Rodolfo Marquez, John Morrissey, Gustavo Angel Olaya, Daniel Posada, Katrina Wolfe, Eugenio Villamar SCR Paul Schrader CAM Mateo Londono ED Dan Lebental MUS Heitor Pereira CAST Shannyn Sossamon, Ron Perlman, Tommy Flanagan, Tim Roth, Brian Cox, Paz Vega, Neal McDonough
WITCH HUNT (1994) DIR Paul Schrader PROD Gale Anne Hurd, Michael R. Joyce SCR Joseph Dougherty CAM Jean-Yves Escoffier ED Kristina Boden MUS Angelo Badalamenti CAST Dennis Hopper, Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Bogosian, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Julian Sands, Valerie Mahaffey